Still-defiant Danny Ainge ready to see what Celtics can do in free agency

Still-defiant Danny Ainge ready to see what Celtics can do in free agency

BOSTON — Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge scoffed at the notion that players might be leery of playing in Boston given the fallout from last season and said his staff will spend this week coming up with a plan for how to aggressively attack Sunday's start of free agency. 

After the draft on Thursday, a defiant Ainge insisted players were “dying” to be in Boston, even as the team braces for the likelihood that All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford will walk away this summer. After introducing the team’s four new draftees on Monday at the Auerbach Center, Ainge was emphatic again when asked if players would be leery of coming to Boston give the circumstances of last season.

"I don't think so at all,” said Ainge. “No.”

The bigger challenge for Ainge and his front office pals is simply trying to get ready for the frenetic start of free agency given that it seemed unlikely until recently that Boston would have potential cap space to work with.

If Irving and Horford walk away, and the Celtics renounce the rights to their other free agents, Boston can generate nearly $34 million in cap room to start the summer. That number drops to closer to $26 million if the team extends a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Terry Rozier while waiting to see what sort of market develops for the point guard.

That unexpected cap space leaves Boston with a variety of avenues it could travel at the start of free agency. The Celtics could try to elbow their way into the conversation with a big-ticket free agent, or pursue a lower-tier and leave some flexibility with building out the rest of the roster. Boston could also use that space to seek talent in trades, or simply eat a bad contract in exchange for future assets that might aid the quest for a star talent further down the road.

The question that Boston brass must figure out is what’s feasible at the start of free agency. Can they get meetings with top players now, or would their time and energy be better spent on lower-tier targets?

"I like the fact that we have different opportunities,” said Ainge. "And we have some flexibility but I don’t really know what is realistic yet. That’s what we’ll spend the rest of this week trying to figure out is what even do we have a chance to do and where should be our priorities? But I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about the flexibility that we have. I’m excited about the youth that we have and some of our returning players. I think it’s going to be a really fun year. Looking forward to it.”

Ainge said that his staff will be prepared for all potential avenues.

“We have a really good feel for all the players in the league, who they are and how they might fit with us and our needs and so forth,” said Ainge. "I wouldn't say a lot more homework but we will have a lot of conversation. That's probably the biggest thing, just to get organized as we possibly can for all the possible scenarios in free agency."

A few more notes from Ainge’s eight-minute session with reporters: 

* Ainge confirmed an ESPN report that the Celtics plan to hire Fairmont State coach Joe Mazzulla for their assistant coaching vacancy. Said Ainge: "I think we’re a little ahead of ourselves but, yeah, we’re moving in that direction. It’s not been finalized yet but we’re moving in that direction. We’ve had Joe here with us [with the Maine Red Claws] before and he’s well-liked by everybody.”

* In the same vein, Ainge admitted the team plans to bring in undrafted big man Tacko Fall to be part of the team’s summer squad. "So, again, those things aren’t final final so I can’t really make comments on them,” said Ainge. "But we do have intentions of having Tacko play with us in the summer league and coming to [summer league] camp next week.”

* Ainge remains incredibly bullish on what’s ahead next season for Gordon Hayward: "I think Gordon is going to have a great year. He's putting in as much work as anybody and we get to see it. I mean, he's here a lot. I'm very excited for Gordon's upcoming year."

Why C's should feel good about their future>>>>

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Kemba Walker injury: Danny Ainge gives update on Celtics star's knee

Kemba Walker injury: Danny Ainge gives update on Celtics star's knee

Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker has missed four consecutive games with a left knee injury, including Wednesday night's 114-103 win over the Utaz Jazz on the road.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge gave an update on Walker's knee during his weekly Thursday morning appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher & Rich" show, and he doesn't seem too worried about the situation.

“We’re just taking it day by day, and we’re being very cautious with Kemba,” Ainge said. “We feel like we need Kemba to be his best self, and right now, we don’t think that he can sustain what he wants to do. But we are confident that his knee is going to be fine and that he’ll be ready to go at some point in the near future.”

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

A lot has been made of Walker playing in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 16. Walker was among the game's starters for Team Giannis, and he played nearly the entire fourth quarter as the matchup became ultra competitive. Ainge downplayed the impact playing in Chicago has had on Walker's absence.

“I think the All-Star Game is a little bit of an overblown situation,” Ainge said. “I mean, if he plays 20 minutes or he plays 29, I’m not sure it really makes that much of a difference, especially since it’s one game over a six or seven-day period. So, I don’t really have any regrets about that. I think that this has been an issue that has been lingering a little bit from before the All-Star Game and I think that nobody really knew to what extent, and we’re just being really cautious with him right now.”

The Celtics are fortunate to be in a situation where they don't need Walker to rush back. The C's are building a comfortable distance between themselves and the No. 4 seed, so it's looking increasingly likely Boston will earn at least the No. 3 seed. Given the Toronto Raptors' difficult schedule to finish the regular season, getting the No. 2 seed also is a pretty realistic goal for the Celtics. 

It's not crazy to be a little concerned about Walker. He is one of the team's most important players, and the Celtics no doubt are at their best when he's in the lineup. The Celtics taking a cautious approach is absolutely the right decision. It's much better for Walker to miss games in February than be sidelined in April and May when the playoffs are in full swing.

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Kendrick Perkins gives Celtics guard Marcus Smart the ultimate compliment

Kendrick Perkins gives Celtics guard Marcus Smart the ultimate compliment

There's little doubt Marcus Smart is the heart and soul of the Boston Celtics.

Whether it's great leadership, All-NBA caliber defense, 100 percent effort and hustle on almost every play, or carrying the load offensively when needed, Smart gives the Celtics a boost in so many areas. 

Smart's presence was felt at both ends of the floor in Boston's 114-103 win over the Utaz Jazz on the road Wednesday night.

His defense was fantastic. Jazz players shot 4-for-12 from the field, including a lackluster 1-for-8 mark from 3-point range versus Smart. He also made an impact offensively with 17 points, including a couple clutch baskets in the fourth quarter. He had nine assists, too.

Smart's all-around play received a special shotout on Twitter from former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, who paid the C's guard the ultimate compliment.

Well said, Perk.

Smart embodies all of the qualities that have made the Celtics the premier NBA franchise for more than 50 years. His performance at both ends of the court, as well as his leadership, are so valuable to this Celtics team. If the C's make a deep run in the 2020 NBA playoffs, you can bet Smart will be a driving force behind that success.

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